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  • Writer's pictureJeff James

Why White People Need to Understand Black History

Like many folks considered White, over the years I’ve had a mixed relationship with Black History Month and the topic of Black history in general. In the “otherness” nature of our culture, it has been easy for many White people to maintain a hands-off approach to Black history with a tempting “that’s not my history” sidestep.

However, in the context of Black History Month in the United States, White people and the very existence of “Whiteness” has been such an integral part of Black history that it is impossible for any of us to ignore it. In fact, if it weren’t for the role of “White” history’s impact on Black people, there would no “Black” history as we understand it today.

Which brings me to the next reason most White people have an arms-length relationship to the celebration of Black history: an assumption that the role White people have played in Black history is primarily one of discrimination and oppression, and therefore, uncomfortable feelings of guilt and shame. There are those of us who handle those uncomfortable feelings with defensive dismissal. “Why should I feel guilty, I didn’t own slaves or discriminate against anyone,” is a common response.

These two chapters provide a tightly-packed review of the history of race's invention and its impact on U.S. history.

Perhaps, but that doesn’t change the fact that most if not all White people in the U.S. have continued to live off the benefits of that history through economic, academic and social status legacy, while at the same time undermining our own long-term well-being. This legacy of racism has by far measurably harmed people of color the most, yet the lack of historical understanding has kept many White people from realizing its harm towards themselves as well.

However, during my own journey to understand and analyze my own Whiteness, I learned that it wasn’t guilt that motivated me to learn this history more deeply; it was understanding how this man-made racial category had affected my own identity and how it was holding me back as a person. Without this understanding of White history, I couldn’t really engage in my own history in a meaningful way, much less Black history. And make no mistake, our histories are tied so tightly as to be impossible to break apart. Black history is indeed American history.

In my book Giving Up Whiteness, I went back to the roots of racial history – how and why it was invented; how it was fueled by a powerful mix of economic, spiritual and “scientific” interests; and how it was propagated throughout the colonization process by its European inventors. At this point, many White folks again push back with anxiety shaped by political narratives. Any attempt at understanding this very real history is denigrated as “Marxist” or dangerous Critical Race Theory that undermines a Christian worldview.

However, I propose to you, regardless of your political, social, or religious worldview, that grasping a fuller picture of the shared Black-White history is not an exercise in guilt. Quite the contrary, it’s an exercise in liberation because it opens the door to understanding the forces that shaped the invention of race, how it has affected all of our lives, and what we can do to create a far better future.

It took me a while to get there, but understanding history – the complete version of it – does take a while, especially when it was never really taught to you through the U.S. education system. Learning it is not anti-American; it’s not Marxist or anti-Christian; and it’s certainly not liberal or conservative. What learning the full version of history leads to is freedom to engage each other more deeply for a hopeful future. When we better understand the forces that have shaped us personally and as a country, we can make decisions out of a desire for healing, justice and abundance for all people.

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